The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays issued a letter April 12 opposing the U.S.-based boycott of Red Stripe beer, Myers's Rum and tourism to the island nation.
The boycott was launched by GLBT grassroots activists in San Francisco on March 28 and spread to New York City on April 15.
The U.S. activists were responding to a new U.S. State Department report detailing the island's gravely homophobic atmosphere, which includes, among much else, music by several internationally known dancehall artists that promotes anti-gay violence and murder.
J-FLAG Programs Manager Jason McFarlane took particular exception to the boycott of Red Stripe beer, saying the brewer has "unequivocally distanced itself from the hostility and violence typical of Jamaican music towards members of the LGBT community."
"In April 2008, Red Stripe took the brave and principled stance to cease sponsorship of music festivals that promoted hate and intolerance, including that against members of the LGBT community," McFarlane said. "The naming of Red Stripe, therefore, as a target of this boycott is extremely damaging to the cause of LGBT activists in Jamaica. ... The boycott call has now left us not only with our persistent day to day challenges but with a need to engage Red Stripe and attempt damage control as a result of actions that we did not take."
McFarlane chastised the boycott organizers for not getting approval from J-FLAG, Jamaica's leading gay organization, before launching the action.
"We believe that any overseas entity or organisation seeking to agitate for change in a context with which it has only passing familiarity should first do its homework to ensure that it does not do harm ... to the cause of the local community whose interest it seeks to defend," he said.
Boycott organizers responded that J-FLAG doesn't speak for ordinary gay Jamaicans, and accused the group of being aligned with elements in the U.S. that sometimes have criticized the work of grassroots and street activists.
"For years, we have heard that the status quo will make the situation better in Jamaica," said Wayne Besen, an organizer of the New York arm of the boycott. "Yet, the most recent human rights reports read like pages from a horror novel. ... For their own safety, J-FLAG members have no choice but to come out publicly against all boycotts—as their former leader Gareth Henry ( has stated ) . We fully understand this—but we also believe that unless there is economic pressure from the outside, nothing will change in Jamaica."
"Human Rights Watch, IGLHRC ( International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission ) and MCC ( Metropolitan Community Churches ) are working to undermine this boycott for political reasons," Besen charged. "They want to unveil their own Jamaica campaign in September—which could include a boycott."
Besen quoted former J-FLAG Co-chair Gareth Henry, who fled to Canada last year, as saying: "J-FLAG can't be seen to publicly support a boycott ... but the gays, lesbians and queers on the ground are supportive of a boycott. ... We have to hit people where it's going to hurt, where they'll feel it. In the Jamaican context talk is cheap."
Scott Long, head of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division, called the notion that HRW, IGLHRC and MCC are in cahoots with J-FLAG to undermine the boycott "nonsense."
"J-FLAG, with which we've worked since 2004, asked folks to forward what they wrote—that's all," he said.
And, on April 16, Henry attacked the boycott organizers for using words he wrote last year "to support your boycott issues of this year."
"I was part of the Canada-based attempts at a boycott last year," Henry said. "We learned numerous lessons from that attempt, not least among which is the fact that the lives of LGBT persons in Jamaica are at risk. I have therefore changed my strategy and will do nothing without the inclusion of my colleagues in Jamaica. ... This call for a boycott of Jamaica is outrageous and counter productive. The attack on Red Stripe is appalling and unacceptable."
Besen then responded: "The J-FLAG/MCC/Human Rights Watch/IGLHRC status quo has failed. ... If Scott Long had expended as much time on ending homophobia in Jamaica as he has attacking our campaign, there would have been no need to launch this effort in the first place. ( I ) f people don't like our boycott, they don't have to participate. There are millions of people, however, who don't want to spend their hard-earned money in the 'most homophobic place on earth.'"
International gay human-rights activists have routinely named Jamaica as one of the most homophobic nations in the world, and several dancehall stars have been blocked from performing in other countries because of lyrics that promote the killing of homosexuals.
The Department of State's "2008 Human Rights Report: Jamaica" says: "The law prohibits 'acts of gross indecency' ( generally interpreted as any kind of physical intimacy ) between men, in public or in private, which are punishable by 10 years in prison. ... J-FLAG continued to report human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of homosexual patients by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings of homosexuals. Police often did not investigate such incidents."
The report continues: "J-FLAG members also suffered attacks on their property, home intrusions as people demanded to know the number of persons and beds in a home, and in one instance, a fire bombing at the home of two men that left one of them with burns on more than 60 percent of his body. In addition homosexuals faced death and arson threats, with some of these directed at the J-FLAG offices. J-FLAG did not publicize its location due to such threats, and its officials reported feeling unsafe having meetings with clients at the organization's office. ... Human rights NGOs and government entities agreed that brutality against homosexuals, primarily by private citizens, was widespread in the community."
To read the full gay section of the report, go to tinyurl.com/dhdmyc and search for the word "gay."
San Francisco activists launched the boycott March 28 at Harvey Milk Plaza at the intersection of Market and Castro streets. They dumped Red Stripe and Myers's Rum into the street.
City Supervisor Bevan Dufty attended the kickoff and promised to get the two Jamaican products out of all San Francisco gay bars within a month. Several bars, restaurants and community leaders announced support for the campaign.
For detailed information, visit boycottjamaica.org . J-FLAG's Web site is www.jflag.org .
—Assistance: Bill Kelley